Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Thundering Message

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ raises the Son of the Widow of Nain
We recently heard the powerful account of Jesus raising from the dead the widow's son at Nain (LK. 7:11-16).  This particular event is unique to St. Luke's Gospel. In his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, the biblical scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, summarized the over-all impression left by this extraordinary event in the following manner:

This incident, only in Luke, shows the Evangelist's special delight in portraying Jesus not only overwhelmed with pity at the sight of tragedy but also turning with kindly regard toward women (cf. 7:36-50; 10:38-42) ... This narrative possesses the charm, color, and pathos of an excellent story:  two large crowds meet, approaching from different directions; the silence with which Jesus touches the bier and stops the funeral procession; the thundering message, calmly spoken, bringing the dead back to life.  (The Jerome Biblical Commentary)

Truly, it is nothing less than a "thundering message" when Jesus said: "Young man, I say to you arise!"  (LK. 7:14).   And when the young man "sat up and began to speak" we should be able to understand, however dimly, the reaction of the crowd: "Fear seized them all; and they glorified God" (7:16).  
The pathos of this story is further increased by the fact that the young man was "the only son of his mother, and she was a widow" (7:12).  There was no existing social safety net within first century Israel that would provide support for this woman.  Without a son who could help provide for her, this widow would have been totally dependent upon the good will and the charity of her neighbors in the small village that Nain was known to have been.  Hence, the power of the simple statement that accompanies the young man's restoration to life:  "And he gave him to his mother" (7:15).  What a reunion that must have been!  
Now St. Luke makes it clear just who it was who encountered this funeral procession and dramatically brought it to a halt:  "And when the Lord who saw her he had compassion on her" (7:13).  It was "the Lord."  This was the first of many times throughout his Gospel that the Evangelist Luke will use this exalted title for Jesus.  The Greek ho Kyrios — the Lord — is the translation found in the Septuagint of the divine name Yahweh.  Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, this title reveals that as the Lord, Jesus has power over both life and death.  Anticipating his own resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus Christ brings this young man back to life, revealing that even death is not beyond His authority and capacity to give life.

We are not told how this young man died.  In our contemporary world, death can be more-or-less defined in a clinical manner.  The shift in this clinical definition has moved toward a final determination of "brain death."  Be it the cessation of breath, permanent "cardiac arrest," or the brain death just mentioned, we can identify death and its effect on our biological organism.  And so could anyone in the ancient world, where death was such a more immediate and "up close" reality compared to the rather antiseptic experience of death that we promote today in a attempt to distance the living from the dying as well as that is possible.  
But as Christians, we certainly understand death in a way that moves far beyond its current clinical definition and determination.  That is because we understand life in such a way that the clinical is transcended by the mysterious:  "What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (PS. 8:4). Conversant with a biblical anthropology that refuses to limit a human person to his or hers biological functions, we perceive ourselves in a more complex and meaningful manner. 

There are many ways over the centuries that within our theological tradition we have elaborated on that inexhaustible biblical affirmation that we are created  "according to the image and likeness of God."  The Church Fathers will speak of the human person as a psychosomatic union of soul and body. Or, following the Apostle Paul of a union of spirit, soul and body. (I THESS. 5:23)  Because of some of the Greek philosophical connotations - primarily dualism - of using the terminology of soul and body, there has been a concerted movement within theological circles today to use the more biblically-based terms of "spirit and flesh" to describe the mystery of human personhood.  Whatever the exact terminology employed to describe the fullness of human existence, the essential point being made is that the human person is more - much more - than "what meets the eye."  We are even greater than the angels according to some of the Fathers, because we unite in our person the "spiritual" and  the "material" as the pinnacle of God's creative acts. We have our biological limitations, but we can still know the living God!  Even though we are so frail in our humanity, the psalmist can still exclaim in wonder:  "Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor" (PS. 8:5).

In describing the mystery of death as it pertains to all creatures, including human beings, the psalmist says (and we hear this at every Vespers service):  "When you take away their spirit, they die and return to their dust" (Ps. 104:29).  This is what happened to the young man from Nain regardless of whatever may have been the immediate cause of his death.  Something had happened that could not be fully described as merely brain death. His "spirit" had been taken away and his flesh was destined to return to the dust.  Another expression that became almost classical as a theological description of death - and which essentially means the same thing - is that of the "separation of soul and body."  Either way, the wholeness and integrity of the human person is lost in death.  This is what renders death a tragedy and why the Apostle Paul can refer to death as "the last enemy." 
When the Lord brought this only son of his mother to life again, the spirit of the young man returned to his flesh - or the soul to his body - and he began to live again in the full meaning of that word.  Yet, this is not resurrection in the fullness of that word's meaning as we apply it to Christ:  "For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (ROM. 6:9).  The young man was resuscitated to life. He lived — and died — again, to then await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, a resurrection prefigured and promised by the Lord's resurrection and victory over death.  The same can be said of the synagogue elder Jairus' daughter and, of course Lazarus, the friend of Christ who had been dead for four days. 

There is a passage from his Discourse on the H0ly Pascha, in which St. Gregory of Nyssa offers a very "modern" - or is that "post-modern?" - evaluation of the loss of a moral/ethical dimension to life when we discard the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead:

... If there is no resurrection, and death is the end of live, then leave off your accusations and reprimands, having been granted an unimpeded authority for homicide: 
let the adulterers destroy marriage; let the covetous live in luxury at the expense of their opponents; do not scold anyone; let the perjurers curse continuously, for death awaits him who sticks to cursing; let another lie as much as one may desire, because there is no reward for truth; let no one help the poor, for the merciful will remain without a prize. 
Such considerations occur in the soul of those more chaotic than the flood; they cast out every wise thought and encourage every foolish thought and thievery. For if there is no resurrection, there is no Judgment; if then the Judgment is denied, the fear of God is denied along with it. 
Where there is no one who is humbled by fear, there the devil exults.

We are told today that we are essentially a walking bag of chemicals with an evolved consciousness.  This further implies that at death this biological organism collapses, all consciousness is irreversibly lost, and that final oblivion is our common fate. 
The Scripture revelation that we accept as coming from God tells us something radically different.  To hear the Gospel is to fill us with the faith, hope and love that can only come from the living God.  It is to hear of a different destiny and one that makes life infinitely more meaningful and hopeful.  We too can cry out together with the crowd at Nain: "A great prophet has arisen among us!" and "God has visited his people!"  (LK. 7:16).  And living within the Church we know that this is the Lord who "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end:" thus allowing us the final joyful affirmation: "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen."

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Announcing our 2018 Fall Adult Education Class

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Christ has inaugurated a new life,
not a new religion …"

                   ~ Fr. Alexander Schmemann

On Monday evening, October 22, we will begin our annual Fall Adult Education Class. And, as in the past, this class will be comprised of six sessions, thus ending on Monday, November 26. I am very much looking forward to this year's class because we will be reading a contemporary Orthodox classic, For the Life of the World, by the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann - of blessed memory we should add. 

This year will be the fifty-fifth anniversary of its publication in America, so it is most appropriate to read this book together as a group and discuss the seemingly endless stream of insights that Fr. Schmemann imparts through his inimitable style. (This year is also the thirty-fifth anniversary of his death in 1983). 

There is no doubt that this book has had an enormous impact on countless Orthodox - and for that matter, non-Orthodox - Christians since its initial publication. In fact, many members of the Orthodox Church today will point back to the impact this book had on them, thus leading them to the Church as a result. Although a "cradle Orthodox" myself, this book was a "life-changer" in my own spiritual development and was a key factor in my decision to enter St. Vladimir's seminary and study under Fr. Schmemann who was dean during my three years there. That in itself was an unforgettable experience.

The All-American Council in St. Louis just this past summer had as its central theme, "For the Life of the World." These are the words of Christ from the Gospel (JN. 6); but nevertheless this is a clear allusion to the title of Fr. Alexander's famous book that more than any of his others enables us to grasp his essential vision for the Orthodox Church in America: simultaneously sacramental, eucharistic and eschatological. And indeed, his son Serge addressed the entire body of assembled delegates and delivered a very moving tribute to his father. 

Further, Metropolitan Tikhon wrote a long extended essay of 60+ pages that was clearly linked to Fr. Schmemann's book, in that it was entitled "Of What Life Do Speak?" We will use this text as a kind of supplement to our main text.This very fine document is still available on the OCA website, and can be downloaded here. 

In addition, this booklet is now available in an attractively printed and bound form from St. Tikhon's Seminary Press. If you would like to have it in that form at a relatively inexpensive cost, here is the link to the website.

In For the Life of the World, Fr. Alexander opens us up to a renewed vision of the Sacraments of the Church - especially the Eucharist - revealing the depth of their purpose and meaning that had long been obscured by a kind of "theology of repetition." Although technically correct, such a theology was no longer inspiring. We will also read of his very trenchant critique of secularism, as he was really one of the first Orthodox thinkers to explore secularism in depth and point out its great shortcomings and inability to offer a meaningful worldview. And, surprisingly, we will also learn why Fr. Alexander said "No" to "religion."

There is a good chance that you, like me, have already read this book; and perhaps, like me, more than once. Now we will have the opportunity to read it once again, and this time within an informal group setting where we will be able to share a lively discussion. If you have never read For the Life of the World, here is a great opportunity to finally "treat" yourself to a great classic of Orthodox literature.

Please visit our special web page for this year's Fall Adult Education class — including our flier, links to order the book(s), and once we begin, our class notes —  and share it with anyone else that you may think would be interested.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Grace, Love, Communion

Dear Parish Faithful,

Anyone remotely familiar with the Divine Liturgy will immediately recognize this wonderful blessing during the Anaphora: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you."

The basis for this blessing is not the result of later "theological development" that became very consciously trinitarian following the Arian crisis and the First and Second Ecumenical Councils. Rather, we find here a scriptural passage that became part of the Liturgy presumably at a very early date. This blessing is actually the final verse of Saint Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians 13:11-14 and is the culmination of his warm benediction — after a rather stormy letter! — to the local church in Corinth:

Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

The Lord Jesus Christ, God (the Father), and the Holy Spirit are named together as equal yet distinct Persons. This may be the Trinity in embryonic form, but it is still expressed emphatically. But not only are the Persons of the Trinity named. Saint Paul succinctly brings together the three most essential and enduring divine gifts that pour forth from the Persons of the Trinity and that sum up the Gospel and the entire New Testament -- "grace," "love" and "communion." In his Commentary on Paul's Letters, the unknown writer, referred to as Ambrosiaster, comments on the essential unity of these mighty gifts:

Here is the intertwining of the Trinity and the unity of power which brings all salvation to fulfillment. The love of God has sent us Jesus the Savior, by whose grace we have been saved. The communion of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to possess the grace of salvation, for He guards those who are loved by God and saved by the grace of Christ, so that the completeness of the Three may be the saving fulfillment of mankind.

These "uncreated energies" create, sustain, inspire and transform our lives within the Church. A community characterized by the presence of these divine gifts would certainly reflect the words of Christ: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden" [Matthew 5:14]. A community devoid of such gifts would be reduced to a club.

"The local church must be the 'place' where grace, love and communion are present and active..."

In fact, if put into practice, this entire final blessing could be seen as the Apostle's description of an ideal local church, or parish. Before all of the planning committees and their proposed programs are put into place; before the necessary stewardship drives are organized; before, even, the "evangelization committee" begins the work of "growing the Church" — before all of this, on the most foundational level, the local church must be the "place" where grace, love and communion are present and active, together with "peace," mutual love, and unity of mind. 

This is the type of church in which people would desire to be active, to which they would give generously, and about which they would witness to others. The Divine Liturgy exhorts us to this when preparing us for our shared recitation of the Nicene Creed: "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided."

Clear remnants of the "holy kiss" referred to in this passage still exist to this day, though often limited to the concelebrating clergy, the exchange of a kiss during the paschal season, and simply the affectionate greeting of members of a parish. Saint John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 30.2, reminds us why a certain type of kiss can indeed by "holy":

What is a holy kiss? It is one that is not hypocritical, like the kiss of Judas. The kiss is given in order to stimulate love and instill the right attitude in us toward each other. When we return after an absence, we kiss each other, for our souls hasten to bond together. But there is something else which might be said about this. We are the temple of Christ, and when we kiss each other we are kissing the porch and entrance of the temple.

Being pastoral, the Apostle Paul realized that the Corinthians needed a strong and affirmative blessing to end his correspondence with them, a correspondence that was often filled with chastisement and correction. At times, he was clearly angry and employed more than a little bit of calculated irony — and even sarcasm. Yet, he never lost sight of his burning desire that the Christians of Corinth manifest the new life to which they were called and into which they were baptized when they received the Gospel. For this reason, he labored and struggled to properly articulate a sound understanding of such seemingly disparate themes as the resurrection of the dead and a Christ-centered sexual morality. We can only believe him when he assured the Corinthians that he wrote to them in tears, fearing for their salvation as he begged them to repent of their sins.

The apostle, who himself was the astonished recipient of the unmerited forgiveness of God, was convinced that the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit" were able to transform a wayward community so that it would truly be the "Church of God" residing in Corinth or Cincinnati, or wherever God is pleased to raise up a people to the glory of His Name.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Multiplying Our Talents, "for our own salvation and the neighbors' benefit"

Dear Parish Faithful,

This past Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Talents during the Liturgy (MATT. 25:14-30). The parable has a wide possibility of interpretation, but on the whole the Church Fathers understand the parable as a profound reminder that we will answer to God for how we use the various gifts - "talents" - that have been bestowed on us. (The talent is a monetary denomination in Hebrew, but for us it has a more extended meaning, because of the richness of our English "talent").

Multiplying our talents is an image of using our gifts to the benefit of others as members of the Body of Christ. An indifference to this task, or even a self-centered refusal to share what God has given us is severely condemned in the parable. 

Here is an area that we must examine carefully though, because the image of the Master in the parable is a far cry from what we understand from Jesus about the "character" of our heavenly Father. The master of the parable is harsh and quick to judge the third servant. And, the parable itself could be seen to approve of a very capitalistic interpretation wherein the multiplying of our money is seen as a virtue in itself. For this reason, the words of a contemporary New Testament scholar, Brendan Byrne, are essential to bear in mind when studying the parables of Christ:

Once again we have to keep in mind that Jesus took parables from life as he saw it lived, without necessarily commending or reproving the behavior described. He used the way people acted in situations of crisis in everyday life to illustrate - not model - appropriate behavior in view of the kingdom. (Lifting the Burden, p. 189)

In fact, a close reading of the parable could reveal that the third servant misread the character of the master. Be that as it may, I would simply like to share some of the comments of St. John Chrysostom on this parable from one of his numerous homilies on the Gospel According to St. Matthew. St. John is ever the moralist, encouraging his flock to a mode of life that is consistent with the Gospel, regardless of how challenging that may be. St. John also makes an allusion or two based on other parables of Jesus that you will hopefully detect:

Let us, then, listen to these words. As opportunity offers, let us make efforts for our salvation, let us get oil for the lamps, let us make the talent pay: if we hang back and spend our time in idleness here, no one then will pity us there, no matter how many our laments.
The person with soiled garments also condemned himself, and gained nothing; the person with the one talent restored the deposit with which he was entrusted, and he was thus condemned;  the virgins made their appeal, came forward and knocked, all to no avail.
Aware of this, therefore, let us contribute money, effort, support and everything for the neighbors' welfare: talents in this case are each person's resources, be it in support, in money, in teaching, in anything at all of this kind. Let no one claim, I have one talent, and I can do nothing: even with one you are capable of measuring up. I mean you are not poorer than that widow, you are not more unlettered than Peter and John, who were simple and unschooled, yet by giving evidence of zeal and doing everything for the common good, they attained to heaven. Nothing, in fact, is so pleasing to God as living for the benefit of all.
For this reason God gave us speech, hands and feet, bodily strength, a mind and understanding, so that we might use them all for our own salvation and the neighbors' benefit.

From Spiritual Gems from the Gospel of Matthew, p. 147-148.

St. John was the master at what we would today call the "application" of the Gospel to our lives.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Place of the Cross - in the Church, and in our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful,

The current Feast of the Elevation/Exaltation of the Cross allows us to go a long way in dispelling a stereotype that has developed concerning the Orthodox Church. This stereotype claims that the Orthodox Church is the Church of the Resurrection and/or Transfiguration of Christ at the expense of the Cross. 
Upon a closer and more balanced examination, this claim loses credibility. The Cross has a central and abiding place within the Orthodox Tradition - theological, spiritual, liturgical, iconographic, and more. For the sake of brevity, the terse expression of St. Gregory Palamas (+1359), synthesizes more than a millennium of the patristic tradition of the Christian East, when he declared in one of his homilies: “The Lord’s Cross discloses the entire dispensation of His coming in the flesh, and contains within it the whole mystery of this dispensation.”

Liturgically, the focus on the Cross can hardly be described as minimal. Great and Holy Friday is at the very heart of the Church’s liturgical tradition, when concentration on the Savior’s death on the Cross is treated with the greatest of solemnity and pathos. The crucified, dead and buried Master is surrounded by the faithful in a series of services that are emotionally intense and theologically rich in expression. This day serves as the prototype of every Friday (and actually every Wednesday) within the Church’s liturgical tradition when the Cross is the “theme” of those days, reflected in the hymnography of the day. That connection is strengthened accordingly by designating Wednesdays and Fridays as “fasting days.” The Cross and fasting have been linked together from the very earliest days of the Church’s history. To this day, practicing Orthodox Christians are expected to fast on those days as an expression of honoring and calling to remembrance the Cross of the Lord.

The current Feast of the Cross – one of the Twelve major fixed Feasts of the liturgical year - is one among others that again will focus our attention on the Cross throughout the year. The mid-point of Great Lent, the third Sunday, is called the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. As on this current Feast, the Cross is decorated with flowers, brought into the center of the church by means of a solemn procession, and then venerated with the same hymn – “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship, O Master; and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify” - accompanied by prostrations. At the end of the service the faithful approach and kiss the ‘life-giving wood” of the Tree of the Cross. Another feast on August 1, though not as observed, is called the “Procession of the Cross.” Neglected or not, the same rite of procession and veneration is prescribed for this feast as for the other two we are describing here.

Another practice, which comes to the Orthodox so naturally, but may strike the outside observer as strange, is that at the end of the Divine Liturgy all of the faithful approach the bishop or priest, and reverently kiss the hand-held Cross that is presented to them. (I am unaware of this practice outside of the Orthodox Tradition, but I could simply be ignorant about this). Each person then receives a piece of “blessed bread” – the antidoron in the Gk. – before leaving the church. Again, for someone raised from childhood in the Orthodox Church this is so natural that it remains indelible in the minds of those who grew up Orthodox even if they leave the Church at some point in time. The point here is that it is one more clear expression of the over-all role of the Cross within the life of the Church. Our last gesture before departing from the Church back to our daily lives is venerating the Cross and committing ourselves in the process of remaining loyal to Christ crucified.

Of course, “making” the sign of the Cross over oneself is another perfectly natural practice for Orthodox Christians – and shared by other Christian traditions, as this is one more practice that can traced back into Christian antiquity. In fact, it is about as natural as breathing! The reason behind this practice is clear yet profound. As I have written elsewhere: The Church and our personal lives are placed under the sign of the Cross, both as an emblem of victory and of our willingness to bear our personal crosses in our daily struggles against sin, temptation, the devil, and all manner of evil. Throughout the entire Liturgy, whenever we glorify God, we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves, revealing our faith in Christ, the “Lord of Glory” (I COR. 2:8) crucified for our sakes according to the will of the Father and “through the eternal Spirit.” (HEB. 9:14)

Non-Orthodox Christians who visit an Orthodox Church, and who may be aware of this practice, will still comment on the frequency with which Orthodox believers will make the sign of the Cross over themselves during the services. Of course, the naturalness of this act should never take away from the concentration and care that needs to accompany this outward sign if it is to have any meaning.

Perhaps we should finally mention the fact that most Orthodox Christians wear a cross. This is not meant to be one more piece of “matching jewelry” or displayed in an ostentatious fashion. Rather it is a humble practice of again recognizing the place of the Cross in the divine dispensation and in our personal salvation. It also implies the “self-denial” that we need to practice as true disciples of Christ. (The next meditation will explore this theme in more detail).

Reflecting upon this summary of the place of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives, one may not only come to the conclusion that the Orthodox do not neglect the Cross, but that their devotion to the Cross may be a bit excessive! But that is hardly the case. What needs to be remembered is that a holistic approach to the Christian Faith combines the “outward” and the “inward.” Feast Days, processions, prostrations, veneration, signings, etc. are the outward manifestations of the Church’s inner vision of the literally cosmic and then deeply personal dimensions of the Cross. This vision based on faith, is then proclaimed to the world in a variety of ways, each of which tries to capture something of the greatness of God’s love revealed in the Cross. For the Cross is the “mystery” of God’s will for the world and its salvation. (cf. EPH. 1:3-10) For the Cross is believed to be “breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (EPH. 3:18-19).

Friday, September 7, 2018

To Deepen our Experience, and Expand our Hearts

Dear Parish Faithful,

"And they held steadfastly to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (ACTS 2:42)

I would like to share some pastoral considerations that I have compiled over time, to perhaps lead to further reflection on how we can "expand" our lives in the Church as circumstances allow. The question we are facing is the following:

What can we do on a practical level that would deepen our experience of God and bring us deeper into the life of the Church?

We exist as Christians on the personal and parish levels. In both areas there is room to expand our hearts as we expand the amount of time necessary to fulfill the words of Christ to make God and neighbor our first priority. At home, we can:

+ Be regular in daily prayer by devising and adhering to a “Rule of Prayer.” This means that everyone needs a good Orthodox Prayer Book. This Rule needs to be practiced with consistency and attention – in both the morning and the evening. The Prayer of the Hours could punctuate your days with the remembrance of God while at work or home. (I can provide you with that prayer if you do not have it). The Jesus Prayer can be on your lips at any time during the day.

+ Read the Scriptures with some consistency. Becoming “scripturally literate” is essential for a Christian.

+ Make a point of even a short prayer or blessing before sitting down to a meal – alone or with the family. All that you have is ultimately from God. We need to recognize this in a concrete manner.

+ Honor and observe the fasting days of the liturgical year.

+ Offer the Prayers of Preparation for Communion before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning. These are found in any good Orthodox Prayer Book.

+ Respond to those in need of your help and assistance when the opportunity arises.

On the parish level, here are some items to consider:

+ Become more than a “Sunday morning only” participant in worship. Incorporate the Saturday evening Great Vespers into your life with some kind of pattern: once-a-month, for example. Honor the Feast Days by making room on your personal calendars so as to be present.

+ Become more aware of being a steward of your time, talent and treasure. Is there a parish ministry that you feel drawn toward? Please speak with me if that is the case. Be responsible in the ministry that you are already committed to. Be a “cheerful giver” of your treasure for the upbuilding of the church. Trusting in God’s love, overcome any reluctance to share of your material and financial blessings by pledging generously to the church.

+ Become more aware of the diversity of persons that you worship together with. Everyone who walks through the door is your neighbor. We are members of the Body of Christ, not mere “individuals” who accidentally worship in the same church. Meet those that you do not know. Avoid judging others by appearance. No one is “better” than the next person, regardless of social status or other worldly considerations. We are all sinners seeking salvation from the “Physician of our souls and bodies.”

Rejoice in being an Orthodox Christian! Rejoice in being able to come to church and worship the living God! Rejoice in the people that you have providentially met in the Church! Rejoice in Christ our Savior!

Glory to You, for every sigh of my sadness,
Glory to You, for every step of my life, for every moment of joy,
Glory to You, O God, unto ages of ages.
Akathist of Thanksgiving - "Glory to God For All Things"

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Conviction and Commitment in the Church New Year

Icon of the 'Indiction', the Church Year.

Dear Parish Faithful,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (MATT. 16:16)

We are now into the Church New Year (September 1) as we will soon celebrate the first major Feast Day of the liturgical cycle – the Nativity of the Theotokos - on September 8. And yesterday evening (September 4) we celebrated the remarkable Akathist Hymn "Glory to God For All Things." 
A new year, of course, means a “new beginning” or the renewal of our lives in Christ;  and the opportunity to examine both our deepest convictions and commitments.  In fact, I believe that there is a profound connection between our convictions and our commitments.  What we are convinced of, we will commit to.  
As baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians who confess our sins and receive the Eucharist, I will assume that our deepest and dearest conviction is equal to that of the Apostle Peter:  that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.  This is what distinguishes us as a parish community – a shared conviction that unites us as the local Body of Christ. Here conviction is synonymous  with the content of our faith.  This is what we believe, a conviction about Christ expanded in the Nicene Creed that we confess at every Liturgy we attend, and beginning with the words, “I believe.”  
As our faith hopefully deepens through the years, we become further convinced that the convictions we hold are true.  Since these convictions are about God, then we are touching upon “ultimate reality.”  What this demands is seriousness and sobriety of both our minds and hearts:  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”  (HEB. 10:31)

Personally, I find it impossible to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and not to have that conviction as the most  important and significant aspect of one’s very existence.  I believe that this conviction transcends all others, and that it is the guiding force of our commitments.  Since, ultimately, this conviction chooses life over death, it is thus a matter of life and death.  This conviction transcends the difference between male or female; rich or poor; even Conservative or Liberal!  
The words of Christ make this clear.  How else can we interpret this “hard saying” of the Lord:   
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (MATT. 10:37)  
Otherwise, we may just be fooling ourselves about our deepest convictions.  With the best of intentions, such a delusion can result in a certain hypocrisy.  
However, if we look at this more positively, we can understand that  this is where conviction leads to commitment, or perhaps a renewal of our commitment if it has weakened.  Even if we continue to struggle with the battle between faith and doubt when assessing our conviction about Christ; or if we share the anguished cry of the anonymous father in the Gospel:  “I believe, help my unbelief!” (MK. 9:24); even then we realize that our convictions can remain abstract or sterile without a genuine commitment to embody them in our daily lives.  
If we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we must witness to this truth with all of our strength.  In other words, we commit to living as Christians tangibly, concretely, and as unhypocritically as possible.  Broadly understood, the words of Christ to the rich young man who was seeking the way to “eternal life” can serve as a sure guide to embodying our convictions about the Lord in a conscious commitment to following Him:

“If you would enter life, keep the commandments … You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (MATT. 16:17-19)

Even further, we can continually study and do our best to embody the moral and ethical teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the beatitudes.  Now there is an ennobling and worthy lifelong project that will probably never reach completion!

Be that as it may, I would like to focus more in the remainder of this meditation on our ecclesial lives which we live out on the parish level and which we take home with us during the week.  
If the Church new year is a wonderful opportunity to (re)commit ourselves to our lives in Christ, then we can always begin with the ABCs of the spiritual life:  prayer, almsgiving and fasting (MATT. 6:1-18).  At home, on a daily basis we must commit to praying with regularity.  We need to have our eyes and then our hearts open to those who need our assistance.  And we need to practice the discipline of fasting according to the Church calendar as part of our ascetical efforts of freeing ourselves from over-dependence/obsession with food and drink.  Reading the Scriptures with regularity as part of our daily lives can certainly be added to this.  This is all basic, but if we have forgotten it, then it can be restored through repentance and effort.

As a parish community, our most foundational commitment is to the Lord’s Day Liturgy.  The Eucharist on the Lord’s Day is the “alpha and omega” of our parish existence.  All parish life flows outward from the Eucharistic Liturgy and returns there for both sustenance and greater vision.  The sharing of our time, talent and treasure will, to a great extent, be determined by our joyful experience of God in and through the Liturgy.  
A “reluctant giver” will view the Liturgy as a religious obligation that needs to be fulfilled; but a “cheerful giver” is one who approaches the Liturgy as an inexhaustible gift from the Lord.  For it is there, at the Liturgy, that we are truly a koinonia – a communion – of brothers and sisters in Christ; for we commune together of the Body and Blood of Christ, uniting ourselves with Christ and with one another.  When we speak of commitment in communal terms, it is our continuing presence at the Liturgy – and as  Eucharistic beings – that should define us.  I believe that this is one of the many strengths of our parish.  A very high percentage of our “parish census” is at the Lord’s Day Liturgy on any given Sunday.  (Arriving on time may just be another matter that needs to be worked on!). I also encourage you to expand your liturgical commitment, and "make room" to be present for our other services throughout the year - from Feast Days to Vespers.

Yet, as our society becomes ever more “secular,” there are increasing temptations to view Sunday as any other day with various attractions and things to do.  Sunday has lost its privileged status in our contemporary world. “Rest” is a rather quaint concept today, suitable for the unengaged, the elderly, or for those who cannot quite keep up with the fast-paced rhythms of today’ world.  Thus, a wide range of events have now spilled over into Sunday, posing an ever-widening challenge for our loyalties.  
Among the clergy, at least, a major concern and topic of open discussion is the proliferation of children’s sporting events that are regularly scheduled now for Sunday morning.  Loyalty to the team is promoted in almost “evangelical” terms. This is one instance of the many pressures put upon the contemporary Christian family, and which demand careful thinking and hard decisions.  Yet, all decisions must return to the twin realities of conviction and commitment.

The Church New Year is a blessing that allows us the time for renewal, for reflection on our priorities, and for repentance if we have somehow lost sight of our “first love” – the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; and if our commitment to Christ has somehow melted away into directions that do not necessarily lead to life.  Yet, “now is the acceptable time!”

Friday, August 31, 2018

Understanding Holy Tradition

Dear Parish Faithful,

It was two Sundays ago that I delivered a homily that included some commentary on St. Paul's extraordinary passage found in I COR. 15:1-11. I simply concentrated on the Apostle Paul's use of the term paradosis which is properly translated as "tradition." 

In this context, and to this day, tradition is that which is "handed over" or "handed down." In the passage under discussion, the Apostle will use the terms "received" and "delivered" to convey the sense of "handing down" or "handing over" the paradosis of the Church - the Tradition that is there from the beginning.  He "received" and then "delivered" the basic Christian proclamation "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve" (I COR. 15:3-5). 

In other words, the Apostle Paul "received" and "delivered" the very content of the Christian Faith: the Good News of the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. Tradition is thus conceived as something very positive, even essential, to the ongoing life of the Church.

That is simply a brief introduction to a passage that I wanted to share following that recent homily because of the common subject matter of Tradition. This passage is actually a mere footnote found in the book Rock and Sand by Archpriest Josiah Trentham. For the moment, this footnote is of interest because of what it implies about translations of the Bible. It is a good example of how translation implies simultaneous interpretation

If we like to use the term "Christian America" then we have to acknowledge that that means basically "Protestant America" for it was the early Protestants that shaped American Christianity. And this creeps into fairly recent translations of the Bible which are also and consciously, I would say, interpretations that lean in the direction of a Protestant reading of the Scriptures. And here I am focusing on the New Testament. Allow me to turn to this passage to see what I am getting at:

Translations inevitably reflect theology and hermeneutics, but some Protestant translations advance the cause of Protestant ideology more than they provide accurate translation. A good example of this is the New International Version (NIV), so exceedingly popular amongst Protestant Evangelicals today.
The theological agenda of its translators is all too clear. Take, for instance, the word in the New Testament for tradition, in Greek, paradosis. The New Testament refers to apostolic tradition, ecclesiastical tradition, which is to be embraced by all Christians, as well as man-made tradition, unholy tradition, which nullifies God's word and is to be avoided by Christians.
Conveniently, but not honestly, the NIV translates all references to apostolic "tradition" by the word "teaching" or "teachings" and  all references to man-made "tradition" by the word "tradition." Hence, the innocent reader of the NIV will come to the conclusion that the only tradition that exists is man-made and unholy and will never know that there is such a reality in the New Testament as apostolic tradition.

Again, this translation seems to clearly reveal a particular interpretive lens that does not allow for a positive assessment of Tradition. 

As Orthodox, we clearly distinguish upper-case "T" Tradition from lower-case "t" tradition(s). There is the Apostolic Tradition so splendidly "delivered" by the Apostle Paul in I COR.; and there are "man-made" traditions, some of them quite fine and wholesome - others questionable - but not to be treated as on the same level as Tradition. Thus, Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the bestowal of life-giving grace belongs to the Tradition of the Church. Yet, various Orthodox Christians throughout the centuries have different traditions around how a Baptism is celebrated. The same could be said for Marriage and even for Funerals. 

As Fr. John Meyendorff has written about this issue:

"No clear notion of the true meaning of Tradition can be reached without constantly keeping in mind the well-known condemnation of  "human traditions" by the Lord Himself. The one Holy Tradition, which constitutes the self-identity of the Church throughout the ages and is the organic and visible expression of the life of the Spirit in the Church, is not to be confused with the inevitable, often creative and positive, sometimes sinful, and always relative accumulation of human traditions in the historical Church." Living Tradition, p. 21.

There is a real urgency to this task of distinguishing Holy Tradition from human traditions argues Fr. John in another passage:

"The very reality of Tradition, a living and organic reality manifesting the presence of the Spirit in the Church and therefore also its unity, cannot be fully understood unless it is clearly distinguished from everything which creates a normal diversity inside the one Church. To disengage Holy Tradition from the human traditions which tend to monopolize it is in fact a necessary condition of its preservation, for once it becomes petrified into the forms of a particular culture, it not only excludes the others and betrays the catholicity of the Church, but it also identifies itself with passing and relative reality and is in danger of disappearing with it."  Living Tradition, 25-26.

One of our main tasks as Orthodox Christians living in the 21st century is to make that clear distinction between the Holy Tradition of the Church — Apostolic in origin and authority — and the many "traditions" that we may enjoy, but which cannot be placed on the same level. Orthodoxy cannot be a museum that deifies the past, but a living Tradition that makes present to every generation the "faith once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).